THE BLOG
12/07/2010 06:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Transforming College Papers and Projects into Careers

College courses require writing papers and group projects as requisites for getting grades that lead to graduation. This we know. The great surprise about the system is that mere papers can become lightning rods to your future career. The magic comes in quitting the "good student" passive role and becoming an active explorer of ideas and alliances to expand your horizons. Sure, it's more work to think about your own agenda than to just fill in the blanks given to you by a professor. But if you make your program serve your own career interests as well as fulfilling your requirements, you'll more than double the value of your degree. Here's how:

If you already know what interests you, you can usually follow up with it and apply it in many of the courses that you must take. You'll have to propose your ideas to your professors and offer to research your own topic or create a spin-off or an alternative to ones on the list.

If you're like most of us, you don't have a clue what you're interested in or what you want to do with your life. You'll be happy to learn that most successful people don't have careers based on their college majors. Don't take that as something lacking on the university's part; take it as a challenge and an opportunity for deep exploration in your courses.

Either you learn how to research and dive into a subject -- or else you will die from boredom. Now, no matter if you are in a graduate or undergraduate class, use the very course requirements as a way to find and ignite that spark.

Here are some examples. If you are taking a history course but are really interested in movies, see if you can write about how movies mirrored the era you are studying. If you are in an English course but really are interested in psychology, propose writing about the author's life or novel from a psychological prospective. The key: try to marry your keenest interest with the course's focus. When you allow yourself to be challenged by investigating or creating an idea that engages your curiosity, that single class can guide your life course.

Your professors' requirements for papers and projects are just the first step in this treasure hunt. They may give you a list to choose from. Figuring out what you want from an assignment is much harder than just choosing the topic that seems the easiest. "Quick and dirty" is one way to do these tasks. But the joke is on you if you take that route, because even "quick and dirty" takes time and effort. If you are bored, you are losing out.

Better to try to match your own curiosity and interest to the list of topics given. If none of the options appeals to you, ask if you can create your own topic and make your case for why you should be allowed to do that. You might end up with more than a grade. You might find ideas and connections that matter. And, if your work is worthwhile, you might even get it published on your own or in your school's or organization's journal. It might lead to a thesis or a dissertation topic. A triple reward.

If you can do this, you don't even have to switch majors or create your own major or curriculum. You can simply use the course requirements to fit both demands: your curriculum's and your own interests and goals.

Understand that most students don't take advantage of their education in this way -- not even brainy students from the Ivies. When I came to give a class lecture to one of the top executive MBA programs, I found a group of students mired down with their chosen project, an analysis of supermarkets. I asked how they chose that topic. Was it assigned? Was anyone working in that field? They admitted that it was simply on the professor's list and no other group had chosen it. Then they added that it looked easy and no one had any conflict with it. To me that meant no one was interested. No surprise that they were bored and frustrated. But the clock was ticking, and they had to keep going with it.

I asked each one of these smart students, who all worked full-time jobs, what they would like their next job to be if it was not the one they were working for now. When one said he would like to work in pharmaceuticals, I mapped out a plan for him and his group. All supermarkets carry designated aisles for over-the-counter drugs and some have pharmacies. Why not write about how markets select the drugs they sell, how the grocery stores display them, or how they realize their customers' needs and preferences. Did the group want to interview salespeople, market managers, or customers? Did they want to survey them or lead focus groups? Did they want to concentrate on how one drug is marketed in many grocery stores?

With these suggestions as a prompt, the team began to become alive. They not only wrote the paper that got them all A's but they also added marketing skills to their resumes. And this way of thinking about an assigned project made the rest of their choices in subsequent courses far more relevant to their own careers.

You can do this too!

Make your luck happen!

Dr. Adele is the author of Skills for Success and Launch Your Career in College. Visit her website, dradele.com